As atheists and skeptics, we face a unique problem in that we are among the least-liked and least-trusted minority groups in America. You’re probably familiar with the statistics, but it is worth reviewing a few of the more startling ones. A study from the University of British Columbia suggests that Americans find atheists less trustworthy than rapists. According to a Gallup poll from last year, half of all Americans would not vote for an atheist candidate for president under any circumstances. A study by the University of Minnesota shows that atheists are considered the group “least likely to embrace common values and a shared vision of society.” It goes without saying that if you’re looking to change the way people feel about atheists, you have your work cut out for you. But what is the most effective means of actually achieving that goal?
Atheist and secular groups have been pushing the “Good without God” message for some time now, and we think that’s great. Perhaps we need a direct attack on the frequently held notion that the nonreligious are somehow inherently less moral than their religious counterparts. But unfortunately, in terms of raw numbers, we still fall behind. When it comes to actually doing good work, empirical evidence tells us that religious individuals, on average, are more engaged in their local communities, give more to charity, and are more active in volunteering (see the 2010 book American Grace by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell).
If you ask us, the most obvious reason for these good acts can be summed up in one word: community. Religious people are active in communities that encourage (or even mandate) doing good work, and the nonreligious currently do not have that. If we as a movement want to stand by the words we display on highways across the country, we’re going to have to start in our communities.
If there’s one place for atheists to start to organize and do good work, it is on our college campuses. In terms of communities, student groups are way ahead of their more “adult” counterparts and understandably so, because college is a time in our lives where community comes naturally. Your next question might be, “How can student groups do good?” To answer that, we’ll give a couple examples of things our group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance, has done in this past year.
We had our first big service project of the year in October 2011. After reading a post on Hemant Mehta’s blog The Friendly Atheist about Catholic adoption agencies shutting down to avoid placing children with gay couples, we were moved to support a secular agency that was stepping up to care for hundreds of kids who had been left behind. We went out to an intersection in the heart of our campus nightlife scene and started selling hot dogs to the hard partiers, and in just a couple nights we managed to raise about two hundred dollars. We were amazed at how easy this was to do. As you might imagine, hot dogs practically sell themselves.
Then, in December, we teamed up with our local Interfaith in Action affiliate and the biggest Catholic group on campus to make the holidays brighter for some families in need. The church had a list of families that were going through rough times, along with the ages and interests of their children. From there, it took only a quick trip to Walmart and a hundred dollars to make these kids feel really special. Seeing their faces when we arrived with presents was by far the most meaningful experience we’ve had doing any service project.
Once per semester (for about two years now), we host a Red Cross blood drive on campus and encourage all of our members to donate. This project is feasible for most groups to carry out because the Red Cross has local branches almost everywhere, and it doesn’t cost the groups a dime to organize. It’s also an easy event to coordinate with other campus groups to improve turnout and make some new friends. Of all the things you could do to improve the image of atheists in society, giving up your precious life fluids to potentially save the life of a stranger has got to be high on the list.
If you’re looking for more ideas, we encourage you to get in touch with your local churches or any organization that promotes some kind of interfaith work. We know the idea of atheist or humanist organizations involving themselves with interfaith organizations is controversial, but we’ve had a lot of success by breaking into their preexisting model for service projects. We were also lucky enough to have an Interfaith in Action chapter on our campus that was open to critical debate and discussion, so we didn’t run into the kind of problems that other groups have reportedly had. Regardless, if that kind of structure is not available to you, go out of your way to find other ways to improve your community.
This is just a very small sample of the kinds of things we have done, but many student groups across the country have been doing other awesome things too. Our secular friends on the campus of Indiana University turned their blood drive into a protest against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy not to allow blood donations from homosexuals. The University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers recently organized a 24/7 Service Week to run alongside their religious community’s 24/7 Prayer Week. The opportunities are endless, and you should never underestimate the power your college group has. It is up to us, as college students, to be role models for the atheism movement as a whole. We are at an amazing point where the things we do, as atheist student groups, will permanently shape the future of the movement as a whole.
When you serve your local community, you have the greatest opportunity to change the way people view you because can show them with your actions that you are committed to social justice. And once they see that, maybe they’ll stick up for you next time someone makes an offhand comment about what atheists are like and what they believe. We are convinced that we will win respect, not by working to make a better world for ourselves but by working ardently to build a better world for everyone—and we hope that you’re willing to join us to make that happen.